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Last Updated: Monday, 5 July, 2004, 10:30 GMT 11:30 UK
Leonard looks for claret comeback
By Matt Slater
Golf editor

For a man who has twice broken European hearts in the most dramatic circumstances, Justin Leonard is surprisingly popular over here.

Let's not forget that it was Leonard who stormed past Jesper Parnevik and Darren Clarke to claim victory at the 1997 Open at Royal Troon.

Justin Leonard with the Claret Jug in 1997
1972 Born 15 June, Dallas, Texas
1992 Wins US Amateur
1994 Turns pro
1995 Loses play-off to Phil Mickelson at Phoenix Open
1996 First PGA Tour win comes at Buick Open
1997 Wins Open, runner-up at USPGA
1998 Wins Players Ch'ship
1999 Loses play-off at Open, holes winning putt at Ryder Cup
2001 Defends Texas Open
2003 Wins 8th tour title at Honda Classic
And it was Leonard who nailed the now infamous 45ft putt at Brookline to complete a Ryder Cup comeback against Jose Maria Olazabal.

Given the scenes that followed that putt - Leonard's team-mates got a bit previous with their celebratory disco - the 32-year-old should perhaps expect the same treatment here that Colin Montgomerie gets over there.

But Leonard won't be barracked by the galleries at Troon. On the contrary, he will be treated like an old friend.

The reasons for this are simple. Firstly, he is remembered for a heartfelt victory speech that managed to summarise all that is special about golf's oldest championship.

Secondly, he is remembered for the good grace with which he accepted his play-off defeat to Paul Lawrie at the 1999 Open at Carnoustie.

Thirdly, he is respected for his love of the event.

Speaking to BBC Sport prior to this year's Open, the first at Troon since 1997, Leonard said: "In 1995 and 1996 I was not exempt and made the trip over to qualify.

If I can put things together like I did in 1997, I can compete
Justin Leonard
"I feel if you have the ability to try and qualify, you should.

"I learned in 1993, when I played as an amateur at Royal St. George, how special the Open is and how much I wanted to be a part of it."

At a time when many would never cross the Atlantic without an exemption to the Open in their luggage, Leonard thought the gamble of qualifying was worth the trouble.

But most of all, Leonard is a former champion, and Open galleries never forget that.

All of these factors should add up to Leonard receiving the best support he will receive anywhere outside his native Texas.

"I'm very excited about returning," said Leonard.

"I haven't played well this year and I hope to get that turned around. But in 1997 I wasn't playing well until about a month before.

Justin Leonard at the 1999 Ryder Cup
Leonard's monster putt at Brookline prompted controversial celebrations
"Returning to Troon, with the fans as wonderful as they are, should bring back some great memories and a bit of confidence."

Leonard is right when he suggests a second win at the Ayrshire links would be a turn-up for the form book, but it would not necessarily be a shock.

After all, this is a golfer who has made a career out of playing the comeback card.

The four greatest victories of his career have all featured fightbacks.

At the 1992 US Amateur, he was four down with nine to play in the quarter-finals before winning six of the next eight holes. That victory proved to be the springboard for his first attention-grabbing triumph.

In 1997, he carded a 65 to make up a five-stroke gap to Parnevik on the final day at Troon.

A year later, he did the same thing to Lee Janzen at the so-called fifth major, the Players Championship.

And in 1999, he came back from four down with seven to play to stun Olazabal and regain the Ryder Cup for America.

Looking back at 1997, Leonard is quick to identify the confidence he gained from yet another comeback as crucial to his victory.

The then 25-year-old arrived in Troon on the crest of a run that started three weeks earlier when he made up five shots on the final day to win the Kemper Open.

Justin Leonard
Leonard has struggled this season but has the right game for Troon
"When I found myself five back again, I used my victory at the Kemper Open as a mental pick-me-up," he said.

"If I had not won the Kemper Open, I'm not sure I would have won the Open."

Another key factor for Leonard was his relative inexperience.

"I didn't feel the pressure of expectations. I didn't feel it was my tournament to win or lose," he said.

"I wasn't battling pressure like Jesper and Darren. I was just trying to shoot the best score I could. I try to return to that feeling as often as I can."

Seven years later, Leonard can no longer claim to be unaware of just how big major titles are, but he will still bring a game suited to links golf and a winner's mentality.

"I've got better shots (than in 1997), my swings are more sound, but I am not getting the same results out of my game right now," said Leonard.

"But if I can put things together like I did in 1997, I can compete."

And a competitive Leonard should be enough to alert the rest of the field of his comeback potential.

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